Page last updated at 18:09 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 19:09 UK

Mauritania takes coup in its stride

By James Copnall
BBC News, Nouakchott

Man walking in Nouakchott
The streets were no quieter than an average Friday in summer

It is difficult to tell in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, that just over 48 hours ago the military seized power.

The military presence on the streets is confined to state buildings and a few key locations.

When I approached one man in uniform, a taut figure with an automatic weapon dangling in the crook of his arm, I was not sure what to expect.

But he responded kindly to my bogus request for directions and gave me a thumbs up sign - before politely asking me to carry on my way.

The economic situation has been bad for a long time, no food, no money, no jobs
Salesman Ibrahima

As Friday is the start of the Mauritanian weekend, the streets are quiet, but no more so than on an average Friday in the heat of summer.

There is no sign of the demonstrations, both for and against the military junta, that brought the town alive on Thursday.

In the BMD neighbourhood black Mauritanians with links to neighbouring Senegal were trying to sell objets d'art and brightly coloured African clothes.

Ibrahima, a salesman, said he was not surprised the military had taken over.

"The economic situation has been bad for a long time, no food, no money, no jobs.

"Now we need the military to organise a very, very clear election."

Bouba, another salesman, who has a Senegalese father and a Mauritanian mother, said he was worried the coup would hurt business.

General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz (r) with unidentified junta members in Mauritania
Gen Abdelaziz has promised to hold fresh elections

"We earn most of our money from foreign tourists, what will happen if they don't come here now?"

A short way up a road bordered by sandy edges, a reminder that Nouakchott is cut out of the desert, was a huge banner.

A commercial group was expressing its support, in flowing Arabic and French capital letters, for the military state council and its leader, Gen Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz.

It took the company less than two days to seize the opportunity to curry favour with the new rulers.

'Squander wealth'

Not everyone is in favour of the coup.

Politicians from several parties have declared their support for the democratically elected and now ousted President Sidi Ould Cheik Abdallahi.

He is still being held by the military, and his children say they are concerned about his health.

Mr Abdallahi is still popular with some ordinary Mauritanians too.

Amar, driving an unregistered taxi, told me he could not support a coup against a man he had voted for.

Mr Abdallahi's victory in last year's elections was seen as a breakthrough for democracy in both Mauritania and the Arab world as a whole.

Map of Mauritania

But many Mauritanian intellectuals have supported the putsch.

One is Mohamed Lemine El Kettab, an academic, human rights activist and president of the Club of Mauritanian Intellectuals for Democracy and Development.

"The international community is right to say they are against the coup d'etat in general," he said.

"But when the situation is very, very critical something has to be done.

"That's the case in Mauritania. In the name of democracy, someone could squander the wealth of the government and see the country fall apart."

That was a reference to the allegations of corruption against Mr Abdallahi and his wife - a topic that came up in several conversations.

But surely the future of democracy is threatened if the country knows the army will step in whenever they do not like the political course chosen by the president, I ask.

Not so, says Mr el-Kettab, a debonair figure with a traditional Mauritanian robe hanging over an open-necked Western shirt.

The people will force Gen Abdelaziz to hold elections shortly, as he has promised, he says.

On an apathetic Friday afternoon in Nouakchott, with few people willing to brave the boiling sun, it seemed an unlikely hope.

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